The chemical link between isoprene and formaldehyde (HCHO) is a strong, non-linear function of NOx (= 27 NO + NO2). This relationship is a linchpin for top-down isoprene emission inventory verification from orbital HCHO column observations. It is also a benchmark for overall mechanism performance with regard to VOC oxidation. Using a comprehensive suite of airborne in situ observations over the Southeast U.S., we quantify HCHO production across the urban-rural spectrum. Analysis of isoprene and its major first-generation oxidation products allows us to define both a "prompt" yield of HCHO (molecules of HCHO produced per molecule of freshly-emitted isoprene) and the background HCHO mixing ratio (from oxidation of longer-lived hydrocarbons). Over the range of observed NOx values (roughly 0.1 - 2 ppbv), the prompt yield increases by a factor of 3 (from 0.3 to 0.9), while background HCHO increases by more than a factor of 2 (from 1.5 to 3.3 ppbv). We apply the same method to evaluate the performance of both a global chemical transport model (AM3) and a measurement-constrained 0-D chemical box model. Both models reproduce the NOx dependence of the prompt HCHO yield, illustrating that models with updated isoprene oxidation mechanisms can adequately capture the link between HCHO and recent isoprene emissions. On the other hand, both models under-estimate background HCHO mixing ratios, suggesting missing HCHO precursors, inadequate representation of later-generation isoprene degradation and/or under-estimated hydroxyl radical concentrations. Moreover, we find that the total organic peroxy radical production rate is essentially independent of NOx, as the increase in oxidizing capacity with NOx is largely balanced by a decrease in VOC reactivity. Thus, the observed NOx dependence of HCHO mainly reflects the changing fate of organic peroxy radicals.